Our Wise Guide: Tao Te Ching (circa 400 BC) is one of the foundational texts of Taoism, the enduring philosophical and religious movement that can be traced back to around the fourth century BC. Throughout the ages, its poetic wisdom continues to be relevant, inspirational, and timeless.
About the author
Lao Tzu has long been considered the principal author of Tao Te Ching, though both his authorship and his existence as a historical figure continue to be debated. Some believe he was a contemporary of Confucius, living in the sixth century BC, others believe his life dates back to the fourth century BC.
There’s a good reason why Taoist wisdom has stood the test of time. For many of us, life can be a struggle. We’re constantly fighting uphill battles or desperately trying to stay afloat – whichever metaphor you prefer, the feeling is the same: getting through another day can be a battle.
Tao Te Ching offers an alternative way forward, which is why it’s so appealing. It’s the opposite of the aggressive, make-the-most-of-every-minute approach to life that many of us have been taught to admire. The path of the tao is about living a life devoid of struggle. It’s about being in harmony with your surroundings and doing by not doing.
Key idea 1
A book or an anthology?
It’s difficult to explain any sort of ancient text without getting into some of the background context. Certainly, this is the case with Tao Te Ching.
On its own, there are 81 short chapters in Tao Te Ching. Each one contains a poetic passage that imparts a bit of wisdom. But beyond that, things get a little complicated. Every reader is sure to note that many of these tiny chapters bear similarities to one another. It’s almost like they're saying the same thing, but with different words.
Take for instance this passage from chapter 22:
“He does not show himself, and so is conspicuous; He does not consider himself right, and so is illustrious; He does not brag, and so has merit; He does not boast, and so endures.”
Now let’s compare it to this passage from chapter 24:
“He who shows himself is not conspicuous; He who considers himself right is not illustrious; He who brags will have no merit; He who boasts will not endure.”
This is basically the positive and negative way of saying the same thing, and it’s not the only example of repetition with slight variation that appears in the text.
These irregular qualities are why some scholars believe that Tao Te Ching is more of an anthology than the work of a singular author.
Of course, the text has long been attributed to Lao Tzu, but there’s very little evidence to suggest that he was an actual historical figure. Further confusing the matter is that the name Lao Tzu roughly translates to “old man.” So it’s quite possible, if not highly likely, that Tao Te Ching is a collection of sayings that have been passed down and accumulated over the span of many, many years.
It is also likely that most of the passages in Tao Te Ching are a combination of two things, a short bit of wisdom that had been passed down verbally, followed by a brief bit of text that kind of explains or underlines the meaning of the passage. Why do we think this? Well, many chapters are made up of a poetic section that, in the original language, has a rhyming pattern – which made it easier for people to memorize. This rhyming part is then followed by a very blunt summarizing section that doesn’t really flow with the previous part. This does make sense though because, as we’ll see, these poetic bits of wisdom can be a little cryptic. So when they were collected it is believed that a little commentary was included to make things clearer.
Also, when we look back to the third century BC, we can see that this sort of anthologizing was common. The Analects of Confucius is a similar collection of sayings. Only in that case, each passage had a helpful beginning that attributed the saying to a particular person, either Confucius himself or one of his disciples. With Tao Te Ching, we only have the name Lao Tzu, and it may be the case that these are the kinds of sayings that captured the kind of wisdom that came from old masters who were valued in Chinese culture for their years of gained experience and insights.
The collection that makes up the Analects also had the benefit of being somewhat thematically organized. But in Tao Te Ching, the organizing principle appears to be centered around the recurrence of certain words or phrases, even if the passages themselves convey different or even contradictory messages. For example, there are two passages in chapter five that use the phrase “heaven and earth,” yet the two passages convey different meanings and no attempt is made to connect them or create a transition.
All of this is to say that, even though Tao Te Ching is a short work, it offers a lot to parse through and a lot to consider. So now that we’ve got some context, let’s get to those actual words of wisdom, shall we?
Key idea 2
The Indescribable Tao
How do you talk about something that can’t be described? This is one of the main complications when it comes to Taoism because the tao is central to the philosophy and yet it is just a word that is used to describe something that is both nameless and indescribable.
The word tao itself can be translated into “the way.” Now, in Confucianism, there’s a similar paradox in describing “the way.” According to Confucius, one of the main principles of following the way is something called wu wei or “nondoing.” This is something that is central to Taoist philosophy as well, but in the realm of Taoism, tao means something more.
In Confucianism, the way is essentially the path to heaven. A virtuous style of living that will put you in heaven’s favor. In Taoism, the Tao isn’t only the way, it’s the creative force behind everything, including both heaven and earth! This is how Taoism can, for some, stretch beyond philosophy and reach a certain religious significance. It’s also why the tao can’t be named or described. It existed before words, it has no appearance, and it has no namable characteristics.
So when we read about the tao in Tao Te Ching, we’re considering a force that created the universe, us, and everything we see. But we’re also talking about a way of living that’s in harmony with that supreme creative force.
The idea of living in harmony with the natural world may sound straightforward enough, but Taoism has some more twists in store.
You see, since the tao is responsible for all things, including that which is strong and powerful as well as that which is weak and flexible, we can’t call one thing as being inherently better than the other. Tao isn’t responsible for bad things. In fact, we really shouldn’t think in terms of good or bad when looking at the world around us.
This gets even more interesting when it comes to how we should behave in order to be in accordance with the tao. The idea of opposites is a recurring theme in Tao Te Ching. A passage in chapter 35 reads: “If you would have a thing weakened, you must strengthen it; If you would take from a thing, you must first give to it.”
Likewise, the tao is described at one point as acting like a bow that is being stretched:
“The high it presses down, the low it lifts up; the excessive it takes from, the deficient it gives to.”
Within all of this is the idea of cycles. This is the way of Tao: to have things naturally rise and fall, again and again. So, if you build yourself up in some way, you’ll inevitably reach a point where you will fall down.
With this in mind, many passages in Tao Te Ching emphasize the value in the weak, as well as the value in not doing. Hard things break. Weak things bend, do not break, and survive. Force will be met with resistance. But if you’re weak and formless you can penetrate even that which has no cracks or crevices. Time and again, the tao is described as favoring the negative. Empty over full. Inaction over action. Nothing over something. This is because these are characteristics of the tao and because the tao lifts up the low.
In the next section, we’ll look deeper into the idea of nondoing and why Tao Te Ching also works as a pretty good leadership manual.
Key idea 3
The Sage Who Does Nothing
Like the Analects, Tao Te Ching is believed to be a product of the Warring States period in China, which started in the fifth century BC and lasted well into the third century BC. For the seven states involved, it was a long drawn-out period of warfare, political turmoil, and cultural changes.
During this time, people with philosophical interests, like the Confucianists and Taoists, also had interests in the kind of head of state they’d like to see. This is why both the Analects and Tao Te Ching devote many passages to the subject of what makes a virtuous leader.
In Tao Te Ching, the ideal leader is referred to as the Sage. This term, along with others like “lords” and “princes,” appears so often that some believe Tao Te Ching is, perhaps more than anything else, a work that is concerned about government leadership.
So, what kind of qualities does a Taoist leader have? Well, as it turns out, one of the best ways we can unwrap the idea of wu wei, or nondoing, is by looking at the role of leadership. There are two fundamental characteristics of both the tao and the Taoist ruler. One is wu wei and the other is wu ming, which means “without name.” So, how should a ruler who is in harmony with the tao act? Without action and without name, naturally.
In chapter 37 it reads, “The way never acts yet nothing is left undone.” This is a perfect summary of the concept of wu wei, and it can also be a confusing paradox on its own. But in chapter 17 this is elaborated upon nicely by explaining that “the best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects… Hesitant, he does not utter words lightly. When his task is accomplished and his work done the people all say, ‘It happened to us naturally.’ ”
Shadowy is another characteristic of both the tao and the Sage that is repeated throughout the text. It gives a good impression of nondoing because it’s suggestive of how your efforts shouldn’t be felt by others. In another passage, it says that should princes and lords follow the way, the people will be transformed of their own accord.
Now, this leads us to the quality of wu ming, or without name. Just as the Sage will guide people in such a gentle way that they don’t feel like they're being led, the Sage will also take no credit or gratitude. The Sage “accomplishes his tasks yet lays claim to no merit.”
This is the kind of leader Taoists hoped to see. Someone who’d value the happiness of others over their own glory. Someone who’d seek balance and peace over conflict and further bloodshed.
While there are no limits to what the tao can accomplish, there are limits to what people should strive for. Throughout the text, we’re reminded not to contentiously seek wealth or power. In chapter 9 we’re reminded, “To be overbearing when one has wealth and position is to bring calamity upon oneself. To retire when the task is accomplished is the way of heaven.”
Of course, all of the advice regarding the Sage can be taken as good advice for the common person as well. The important thing to remember is that the tao is always working to bring balance and harmony to the universe. If something rises too high, it will be brought down. Even if that rise is slow and gradual, the fall will be quick and decisive.
Much of the text can be read as guidance for self-preservation. Certainly, in the Warring States era, those who were wealthy, power-hungry, and greedy likely had a target on their backs. But there’s common wisdom to be found in the Taoist way of favoring the negative and valuing weakness over strength.
One of the characteristics of the tao is jou, which means pliant or submissive. These days, we don’t regard submissiveness as being an ideal characteristic to have. But what’s the opposite? Being hard, brittle, and stiff. Not exactly ideal either, is it? Think of it this way: When you’re young it could be said that your body is most full of life. You’re weak, supple, flexible, and enduring. In death your body becomes stiff, dry, and shriveled. Likewise, when plants and trees are full of life, they’re pliant and submissive to the wind and water. They must be in order to survive.
In fact, the metaphor of water is perhaps a good one to end with. In chapter 8 it says that the “Highest good is like water.” Water flows effortlessly. In doing so, it benefits and nourishes many things along the way – even as it moves downstream and “settles where none would like to be.” It puts the well-being of the many ahead of its own interests and does so effortlessly. This is the way.
Tao Te Ching is a classic text of ancient wisdom that continues to inspire people. While it was compiled over 20 centuries ago, it contains philosophical ideas that cross over into the realm of religion. It speaks of a great force that created the universe – the heavens and the earth – and suggests how we may live in harmony with it. Even though this force is nameless, formless, and effortless, it is given a name – tao. To be in harmony with the tao is to also lead without force, and not to seek credit or gratitude. The way of the tao is to put the happiness of others ahead of your own and to recognize the value in weakness and submissiveness over rigidity and forcefulness.